This is the three R’s: Repetition, repetition, repetition.
In 1956, my wife’s grandparents left Dalton, Georgia, to go work on an automotive assembly line in Flint, Michigan. Dalton’s carpet mills weren’t that dissimilar to the GM line, and many workers moved between the two industries throughout the 20th century. It was grueling, repetitive work that nourished neither mind nor body, but it paid a living wage, and the United Auto Workers union was strong, whereas Georgia was (and remains) a right-to-work state. The UAW ensured that workers were well compensated and protected and could take time off from their robotic work. Decades later, I paid a buck to willingly experience a similar type of mind-numbing repetition with Super Crate Box.
Super Crate Box is assembly line gaming. I repeat the same simple actions in brief bursts of repetitive play, jumping, running, shooting and avoiding contact with enemies for as long as possible. When I’m doing well “as long as possible” might mean ten seconds. Otherwise it’s a quick series of blink-and-you-miss-’em microlives, characters fading in and out of existence with the speed of a sneeze.
Super Crate Box turns me into a robot. I’m an automaton performing the same simple actions in perpetuity with little emotional engagement, like line-workers in Flint or the blank-faced grannies at the nickel slots. Only instead of a paycheck or a bucket full of quarters, my only potential takeaway is the satisfaction of nailing a slightly higher score.
Like last year’s unrelated Super Meat Boy, Super Crate Box takes both visual and philosophical inspiration from early videogames. Play is limited to a single screen at a time, with only three screens total in the game, each with a symmetrically arranged series of platforms that recalls the original Mario Bros. or the old Popeye game. The goal is to collect as many crates as possible before dying. Each crate contains a different unknown weapon that replaces whichever one I’m holding, and when I collect enough crates I unlock various new elements, including new weapons, levels and characters. Only one crate appears on screen at a time, and once my character grabs it another crate randomly pops up elsewhere. My character jumps from one platform to the next, occasionally firing off bullets or launching grenades to keep the villains at bay, while trying to reach those crates. Repeat on end with a death every two to five seconds.
There’s a primal appeal to this basic set-up for anybody who ever spent time in arcades or played the 2600 or Nintendo Entertainment System. Simple controls and self-evident goals help Super Crate Box tap into a wellspring of nostalgia, but, like Angry Birds and other easily grasped mobile games, those aspects also welcome the non-enthusiast into the fold. Super Crate Box appears non-threatening and inviting to all, which makes the game’s thoroughly threatening nature feel even more punitive.
Super Crate Box is merciless. Death is sudden and constant and almost always frustrating. That’s intentional on the game’s part, but some of the wrinkles that reinforce that difficulty lead to an uneven, and maybe even unfair, game.
Luck plays too big of a role in Super Crate Box. Everything is random outside of the level design and the paths travelled by the enemies. There’s no way to know what weapon is inside a crate until I’ve grabbed it, and not all weapons are equally useful. Sometimes the crates appear almost exclusively on the upper platforms, and I have to face the enemies head on to collect them. That guarantees a quick death. My best scores come when the crates cluster on the lower reaches, where I can hole up in a spot safe outside of most of the enemies’ trajectories and dart out to grab a crate as necessary.
Occasionally lines of extremely fast red foes pour out from the top of the screen almost as soon as a game begins, with two constant streams zig-zagging across almost every inch of the screen. Too fast to dodge or easily target with the limited range of most weapons, these enemies should normally just be avoided from a safe spot. When trapped by two unending columns of them I prefer suicide over waiting. Normally a game would gradually build up to that level of difficulty, but in Super Crate Box there’s no correlation between my progress and the skills or amount of my enemies.
That unpredictability can be exciting, but it also makes the game feel ambivalent to my participation. Some might even call it hostile. Super Crate Box’s rules are simple but the game is too capricious to truly love.
I play Super Crate Box on my iPad, and that opens up another problem. The virtual touchscreen controls are abysmal. I regularly have to stare down at the on-screen buttons to make sure my fingers are in the right place, and with a game this fast-paced any such distraction can lead to instant death. It’s hard to play a game like this when I can’t feel the buttons I’m pressing.
All of this is why the extremely short run time of the typical Super Crate Box game is actually a perk. As off-putting as these issues can be, it’s not like they’ll suddenly ruin a long, story-based game that I’ve devoted hours to. It’s easier to tolerate such hindrances with a game dedicated to compulsive pick-up-and-play time-wasting.
As a flawed game that remains deeply addictive, Super Crate Box resembles Angry Birds, that gold standard for mobile gaming success. Like an assembly line worker I’ve spent hours this week doing the exact same thing over and over. Am I having fun? I don’t even know. Am I still playing? I’ll just say that, if this review seems disjointed or discursive, it’s because I took an hour-long Crate Box break after every twenty minutes of writing.
Garrett Martin is the videogame and comic book editor for Paste Magazine. He reviews games for the Boston Herald and has written for many other outlets. He always thought working at GM’s Doraville Assembly Plant would make him feel like a man but never had the confidence to apply. Twitter him, etc.